The Lethal Weapon franchise is like most franchises: It starts with a great idea and great characters, and then everything that follows is either interesting but not as good, or just simply misguided. It’s hard not to compare Weapon to other four film franchises, and perhaps it’s best to compare it to the Indiana Jones films. In that case, Lethal Weapon has the better fourth film, but it was never as good.
Regardless, director Richard Donner saw the chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and knew there was something that could be exploited for all it was worth. They were joined at points by Gary Busey, Chris Rock, Joe Pesci, Jet Li, Rene Russo, Joss Acklund, Tom Atkins, Stuart Wilson and Patsy Kensit. Our review of the Lethal Weapon Collection Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The first film is the only one that isn’t scope (2.35:1), but it’s also the best. Mel Gibson plays Martin Riggs, a man who’s on the verge of suicide because his wife was killed by a drunk driver. He’s partnered with Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, who’s a family man that isn’t looking for trouble. The film starts with a young girl on drugs who jumps out a window, and it turns out the girl is the daughter of one of Roger’s old friends (Tom Atkins). There doesn’t seem much to investigate at first, but as the two dig around they find that though the death may have been suicide, the girl was fatally dosed. This leads them to cross paths with Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), who is one of the bad men behind heroin and other assorted bad stuff in Los Angeles.
At the time, Gibson was a mostly respected actor, though he had the Mad Max franchise behind him. This is what turned him into a Hollywood star, and it totally got his persona. Slightly on edge, funny and handsome as all get out, Riggs was a showcase role that Gibson nails. Glover is there to show domesticity, and it was brilliant casting at the time to have the black actor play the more normal one (the standard would be Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. or Beverly Hills Cop), which was perfect in the era of The Cosby Show. But more than that they’re good, smart cops who work well together. There’s a partnership that forms and they bounce well off of each other.
Action is usually dated by its era, and Donner’s approach here is very practical. He was never into the visceral kicks that – say – Sam Peckinpah or John Woo made famous. But he is all about the characters, and though it’s hard to say the action sequences are stunning, they work because you care and you want them to win. From the casual homophobia to the haircuts and styles, the film feels very much of period, but it’s still a tightly driven narrative that ends well.
But it must be said – and screenwriter Shane Black has bitched about it – the ending makes absolutely no sense. It works on an emotional level, you want Mel Gibson and Gary Busey to go at it mano a mano, but I would love to read the police report that explains their actions.
The second film is bigger, and it’s more of a crowd pleaser. Riggs has achieved a certain stability, so there’s none of the brood of the last film, and it’s more – as comes to be the case with the sequels – something of a hang-out series. Maybe it’s because now that it’s a franchise, everyone feels that much safer. Riggs and Murtaugh have been working well together, and here it starts (brilliantly) in media res by having them in hot pursuit. There’s a funky, funny car chase that mocks the first film a little by letting Gibson chase after a car on foot, and the movie maintains that pace for much of the running time. Here the bad guys are South Africans, which – at the time – wasn’t exactly cutting but showed some balls. Using their diplomatic status they’ve been into money laundering, and somehow Federal witness Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) was working for them. But Riggs and Murtaugh don’t know that when they’re assigned to protect him, and so Leo tags along and helps them out. Pesci plays the role as a perky chipmunk, and he’s winningly annoying. Here also Gibson’s character starts seeing women, here it’s Rika Van Den Haas (Kensit). It ends with a big dockyard fight that’s “eh” in terms of action (ooh, they jump off a platform while holding a rope), but satisfying for the characters.
There was little left for them to do by the third and fourth film, so they work more as soap opera than as action movies. In Lethal Weapon 3, it’s about Gibson’s Riggs settling down and finally meeting a woman who can match him. That’s Rene Russo’s Lorna Cole. And if the film works at all it’s because their chemistry is charming, and Donner stages a fun scene that pays homage to the scar comparisons in Jaws.
Unfortunately, the plot is nonsense, and has Stuart Wilson playing an ex-cop who’s been selling weapons that were confiscated by the police back to criminals. As a sequel it feels like they made it up while they were shooting based around locations they knew they could have and destroy, so the bad guy is also building real estate. There’s political commentary about gang violence that shoe-horns in Boys II Men songs, and it just feels like they didn’t have anything much besides Gibson and Russo’s relationship. The characters keep it afloat, but just barely.
With the fourth film it becomes about having children, which means that Russo’s character is pregnant, and so is Glover’s character’s daughter. The father of the latter is played by Chris Rock, who was coming off of Bring the Pain, and which reignited his career. What that also means is that movie stops from time to time to let him do some schtick. If the film improves on the third entry (but really it’s splitting hairs on which is better), it’s because Jet Li plays the bad guy, and Donner’s action sequences are better here than in most of the franchise. Mixing a very American approach to his kung fu makes everything very practical and dangerous. It’s the first time you feel like they might kill off a character since the first film. But with the latter two films, it feels like a lot of plate spinning.
Ultimately, there was little need of a franchise with the first film, though it never feels as forced as – say – the Die Hard films. It isn’t based around a situation, it’s based around characters, and cops are likely to have other cases. But nothing that happens in the later entries really justifies being told. If the sequels have their appeal it’s because Donner does cast his films like families, and there is a sense that everyone is happy to be working with each other again. Yes, that also meant big paydays, but the fact that Glover’s family and many of the supporting cop characters make their way through the series gives it a communal feeling – even if there are tons of homophobic remarks surrounding Riggs and Murtaugh’s friendship/partnership. But it was a different time.
All the films are presented in widescreen (1.78:1 for the first film and 2.35:1 for the sequels) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio. The first two films were released early in the format’s history with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and the picture and sound quality is greatly improved here. All the films also come with commentary tracks, the first three with new tracks recorded by Richard Donner, and the last one has the DVD commentary with Donner, producer J. Mills Goodloe and associate producer Geoff Johns. Though Donner offers some interesting thoughts in the first three tracks, he’s gruff and at times slightly bored with the process, though Donner doesn’t bullshit, so they’re interesting in moments.
The first film comes with fourteen deleted and extended scenes (30 min.), a music video and the film’s theatrical trailer. The second film comes with three deleted scenes (4 min.) a vintage featurette called ‘Stunts and Action’ (4 min.), and a trailer. The third film comes with three deleted scenes (4 min.) a music video, and two trailers. The fourth film with the TV documentary ‘Pure Lethal! New Angles, New Scenes and Explosive Outtakes’ (31 min.) which offers a different behind the scenes look at the films, and the disc closes out with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Brand new to this set is a bonus disc, which offers four featurettes done in 2010. It gets Gibson, Glover and Donner together, and gets comments from writer Shane Black, editor Stuart Baird, producer Joel Silver, Rene Russo, Chris Rock and many more on the films. ‘Psycho Pension: The Genesis of Lethal Weapon’ (24 min) ’A Family Affair: Bringing Lethal Weapon to Life’ (30 min) ’Pulling the Trigger: Expanding the World of Lethal Weapon’ (30 min) and ’Maximum Impact: The Legacy of Lethal Weapon’ (22 min.) are the four, and the first two focus mostly on the first movie. But for the most part they talk a lot about the first film and give the sequels short-shrift. They also talk about the possibility of doing one more. The interviews are good and candid, though Glover doesn’t offer too much to the proceedings – perhaps because Gibson is a quick talker, and Donner comes alive with the two of them around. If you’re a fan of the franchise, this is a no-brainer, though if you just like the first or first two entries, it might be worth waiting for a sale, or separate releases.